The Royal Foundation of St Katharine is one of the oldest religious charities in Great Britain, with a history spanning 900 years.

Originally known as St Katharine’s by the Tower, it has seen many re-inventions throughout the years. But it has always maintained, as it does now, a clear focus on worship, hospitality and service.

St Katharine’s was founded by Queen Matilda, the wife of King Stephen, as a hospital for the poor outside the walls of the Tower of London. It remind there for 678 years until the construction of St. Katharine Docks in 1825.

In 1948, after 123 years in Regent’s Park, Queen Mary moved the Foundation back to East London to the site of St. James ratcliffe Church which had been bombed in the Second World War. In 2011, the Foundation opened its doors to the general public. Today, it provides an extraordinary urban oasis for groups and individuals to stay, meet, reflect or retreat.

12th Century

Queen Matilda’s Foundation


St Katharine’s was founded in 1147 by Queen Matilda, the wife of King Stephen. In her Charter, Matilda described the Foundation as, “My hospital next to the Tower of London”. She placed it in the custody of the Priory of the Holy Trinity at Aldgate, saying that they were to “maintain in the said Hospital in perpetuity 13 poor persons for the salvation of the soul of my lord, King Stephen and of mine, and also for the salvation of our sons, Eustace and William and of all our children”.

The duties of the Foundation lay in celebrating Mass, especially for the souls of those mentioned in the Charter, and in serving the poor infirm people in the Hospital. Matilda obtained a site on the east side of the Tower of London and the Church and Hospital were built there among open fields beside the river.

No plan of the original building has survived; but it was probably, like later buildings on the same site, on the usual plan of a medieval monastic hospital, with a large nave where the inmates were accommodated, cut off by a screen from the Chapel where services were held.

At an early stage the 13 poor persons were divided into a Master, or warden; 3 brethren, who were priests; 3 sisters, who were nuns; and 6 poor or infirm people who were looked after in the Hospital.

13th Century

A struggle for control


In the thirteenth century a conflict developed over the control of the Foundation. The Prior of Holy Trinity alleged that its discipline was becoming lax and the Priory appointed one of its own Canons as Master.

The brethren appealed to Queen Eleanor, wife of Henry III, for help. They complained that the Priory was wasting their property and allowing the hospital to fall into decay.

In 1257 the Bishop of London visited the Hospital to look into the dispute. He was told by the Priory that “as to the appointment of one of their own body to the Mastership of St. Katharine’s, it was done to reform the Brethren, too frequently inebriated”.

The Bishop nevertheless removed the Master and, after a good deal of litigation, the Priory was forced in 1261 under the threat of the King’s displeasure, to surrender all claims to St. Katharine’s. Pope Urban IV protested, but in vain.

Queen Eleanor’s Charter


In 1273 Queen Eleanor granted a new Charter to “the Hospital of St. Katharine at London, without the Tower of London”. This Charter laid down that Masses were to be said for the soul of her husband who had died the previous year, her own and the souls of all the Kings and Queens of England. It specified there was to be a Master, 3 Brethren, who were to be priests, and sisters appointed by the Queen to whom the patronage of the Foundation was reserved.

After that the Foundation remained under the patronage of the Queens of England though with occasional disputes between the Queens Consort and the Queens Dowager.

Provision was also made for 6 “poor scholars” who were “to be supported with frugality”, and who were to assist with the Divine Service “when they can conveniently leave their studies”. Alms were to be distributed to 1,000 poor people outside the Hospital. The Foundation thus took on an educational role and began to extend its works of charity to people outside the Hospital. The area to the east was part of the parish of St Dunstan’s, Stepney, but that church was over a mile away.

14th Century

Queen Philippa’s Ordinances


With the patronage secured, it became the custom to appoint royal officials as Master. Though like most royal officials, they were mostly clergy at that time. Around 1338, William de Kildesby was appointed and began the rebuilding of the Church and Hospital, which was continued by John de Hermesthorpe, appointed around 1368.

In 1351, Queen Phillippa, the wife of Edward III, drew up new regulations. She laid down that all important decisions were to be made in Chapter consisting of Brethren who were “priests of good behaviour” and Sisters who were to have the same voting rights as their male colleagues.

The ordinances included details on what was to be worn, eaten, how often Mass was to be said and the avoidance of any striped cloth. As well as details of the charitable works of the Foundation, which included caring for the old and infirm poor and children, which led to the creation of a Choir School. After Philippa’s death her husband endowed a Chantry, with an additional Chaplain to pray for her soul.

15th Century

The Precinct of St. Katharine’s


In 1438, Thomas Beckington became Master and developed the Church. By then cloisters had been added outside the building, with accommodation for the Master, Brethren and Sisters and the elderly and children who made up the Foundation’s community.

The Foundation owned a great deal of land around its buildings, parts of which has been let to various tenants, so there was quite a large population living within the precinct. Wharfs on the riverfront carried a growing trade and one suspects that lying as the area did outside of the City wall, it was not subject to Guild Law. Immigrants in search of a new life also set up their wares on the riverside there.

In 1421, Beckington obtained a Charter of Privileges from Henry VI which gave the Foundation the widest powers it ever enjoyed. It was exempted from the secular jurisdiction of the City of London and the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Bishop of London and given complete authority over the whole precinct and everyone living there with responsibility for their spiritual and material welfare. The Master, originally one of the “poor persons”, became a powerful and wealthy person.

St Katharine’s maintained its favoured position throughout the War of the Roses. In 1475, Queen Elizabeth, the wife of Edward IV, appointed as Master her brother, Lionel Woodville, who also became Bishop of Salisbury. 

When Richard III became King in 1483 in place of the boy, King Edward V, Lionel took part in Buckingham’s rebellion and had to flee from the country. A new Master, William Wryxham, was appointed, but Richard confirmed St. Katharine’s privileges in 1484.

Wryxham temporarily lost his position after Richard’s death but was later reinstated and the Foundation’s privileges were again confirmed in 1485.

An old Sister later described St. Katharine’s in the period just before the Reformation, saying that there were always, “a preest master with thre priestes and one or two syngyng preistes besides Certeyn synging men clarkes with synging chyldren, And these kept daly service song in the churche”.

16th Century

The Reformation


The sixteenth century saw the great upheaval of the Reformation and the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII. St. Katharine’s was not dissolved. This was probably at the request of its current patron, Katharine of Aragon who did not cease to be the Patron despite her divorce from the King. In fact, she remained Patron until her death and her Spanish confessor, Giorgio de Athequa, officiated at her funeral in Peterborough Cathedral.

Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife, never became Patron of the Foundation and the decision to spare the Foundation at the time of the Reformation must effectively have been his own.

By 1546, St Katharine’s was known as a college and this change of name may have protected it from being dissolved.

After Henry VIII’s death, his sixth wife, Katherine Parr (shown left), married Thomas Seymour, the brother of Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, and uncle to the young king, Edward VI. They married secretly, in fact, six days after Henry VIII’s death. Katharine remained Patron of the Foundation and appointed Seymour as Master, although he was a layman. He was unsatisfactory in this role as in many others and there were complaints that he “took all the hale revenue besides to his own selfe”.

After his wife died, Seymour became the first of many unsuccessful suitors to the King’s sister, Elizabeth, who was then only 15. He engaged in intrigues against his brother, the Duke of Somerset, who had been appointed Lord Protector, and was executed on Tower Hill. He was certainly one who played for high stakes!

In the meantime, changes had been made at St. Katharine’s. Mass was said in English and the Brethren were allowed to marry. St. Katharine’s appears to have favoured the Protestant cause but was not extreme in its support!

The Attempt to Restore the Old Order


In 1553 Queen Mary (shown left) came to the throne and set about restoring Papal Authority. She immediately tried to reverse history at St. Katharine’s by appointing a priest, Francis Mallet, Dean of Lincoln, as Master.

Mallet said he found the place, “bayr and voide of all stuff, sore in decay and unrepeyred” although the Foundation was still “supporting poor and imbecile men and women, who reside therein”.

He restored the Latin Mass and tried to revert to old customs but met with much opposition from the inhabitants of the Precinct.

The Charter of Queen Elizabeth I

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In 1558, Queen Elizabeth succeeded her sister and England was once more set on a Reformation course. She appointed a layman, her secretary, Dr Thomas Wilson, as Master but he was very unpopular, possibly because he tried to rationalise the affairs of the Foundation. He dissolved the Choir which he claimed to be “not much inferior to that of Paules” (St Paul’s Cathedral) and drew up a plan for brining the Foundation under the jurisdiction of the City of London.

This aroused violent opposition from the inhabitants of the priesthood who drew up “a spirited petition” against it which they put to their Patroness, the Queen. They said that St. Katharine’s was “one of the chiefest Hamlets apperteyninge to the Tower” and that many of the inhabitants were “sea faringe men” on whom the safety of the Realm depended and pointed out that the Hospital had been established for the benefit of their district.

As a result, Wilson’s plan was stopped and the Queen confirmed most of the Foundation’s privileges.

Under Elizabeth’s patronage, the arrangements for Divine Service continued, though it was, once again, in English. The Brethren continued to be priests, although most of them were married. The Sisters were usually widows of gentry. The Brethren and Sisters received equal stipends, of £8 per year each. The other inmates were old almswomen.

The Foundation also became responsible for poor relief in the Precinct under the Elizabethan poor laws, which put the duty of poor relief on parishes.

In 1596 Elizabeth appointed the curiously named, Dr Julius Caesar (shown left), Master, a post he held for 40 years. He proved a generous Master. He renovated the buildings at his own cost and built a gallery inside the church, and had a pulpit of carved wood put in the nave. He also deserves some personal comment of some relevance to us all. He was, in fact, the son of an Italian immigrant who had made his way up the river. He himself was obviously a talented and ambitious lad who decided that he needed a more distinguished name than that he’d been given at birth and so chose the name of an illustrious historical figure he had heard of. He, in fact, became not only the Master of St. Katharine’s but also the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Master of the Rolls in the realm, three posts he held simultaneously. His portrait rightly hangs in a place of honour over the fireplace in the sitting room of the present Foundation buildings.

Stow’s Survey


Toward the end of Elizabeth’s reign, in 1585 John Stow made a survey of London and noted, “St. Katharine’s by the Tower of London, and Hospital, with a Master, Brethren and Sisters, and almswomen, founded by Matilde, wife to King Stephen; not suppressed, but in force as before,” and added that St. Katharine’s was “of late time called a Free Chapel, College and a Hospital”.

A community of foreigners had added to the population of the Precinct, no doubt brought in by the growing trade. Stow said that the Church was “of late years inclosed about, or pestered with small tenements and homely cottages, having inhabitants, English and strangers, more in number than some city in England”.

Stow included St. Katharine’s in his list of parish churches noting that it served the area around it in that capacity. The area was still legally the parish of St. Dunstan’s but in view of the distance to that church, the inhabitants probably looked upon St. Katharine’s as their church.

The seafaring community to the east of the Tower had spread along the river-front. Stow wrote that “from this Precinct of St. Katharine Wapping in the Wose and Wapping itself was a continual street, or filthy strait passage, with alleys of small tenements or cottages, built and inhabited by sailors’ victuallers, along the river Thames, almost to Radcliff, a good mile from the Tower (in fact the Ratcliff Highway, one of three main roads running out of London to the East which had followed the line of a gravel embankment above the Wapping Marshes since Roman times is a recurring motif in our story as we shall see).

17th Century

The Puritan Revolution


Having survived the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the sixteenth century, St. Katharine’s had to face a new danger in the seventeenth with the Civil War.

As a Royal Foundation and a former monastic house, it inevitably attracted the hostility of the puritan republicans as they set about despoiling church property after the execution of Charles I.

A memorial was drawn up urging the abolition of the Foundation, on the grounds that, “it ought at all events to be suppressed, monkery being the root of all iniquity … and all such fraternities and sisterhoods being sparkes, leaves and impes of the said roote of iniquity”. St. Katharine’s survived, but was staffed by dissenters. One of the Brethren’s places was filled by a puritan preacher, Richard Kentish, who claimed to have been chosen by the people.

The Lord Chancellor’s Visitation

After the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, the staff at St. Katharine’s changed once more. Kentish resigned and formed an independent congregation nearby in Wapping.

From that time the clergy at St. Katharine’s were usually High Churchmen and included Dr Edward Lake, who compiled a manual of preparation for Holy Communion for Queen Anne.

At the end of the seventeenth century new parish churches were established in the area near St. Katharine’s, including St. John’s, Wapping.

St. Katharine’s was by then a very wealthy Foundation and the Mastership was a lucrative post. This led to abuses, as most of the funds went to the Master, who was frequently an absentee, while the buildings were neglected.

In 1673 a pamphlet was drawn up complaining that “the church (though heretofore like a Cathedral) and the Master’s House, and the houses of the Brethren and Sisters, and of the poor were becoming extream ruinous, and like to fall”.

Nothing was done until 1698 when the Lord Chancellor visited the Foundation to investigate complaints that the Master, Sir James Butler, was acting unconstitutionally and misappropriating the Foundation’s funds.

The complaints were found to be justified and Butler was deprived of his post. New regulations were drawn up for the conduct of the Foundation’s business.

These Constitutions reaffirmed most of the old rules. They laid down that all business must be transacted by the Master, Brethren and Sisters in chapter. A new element of inequality was, however, introduced in that the Brethren’s stipends were raised to £40 per annum and the Sisters to £20. The Master was allowed £500 per annum. New rules were made about the use of the revenues and charitable objects were drawn up, including the establishment of a charity school. 

18th Century


The school was set up in 1701 and by 1727 had 35 boys and 15 girls. An old practice was revived as the children sang at services in the church.

With the finances put in order the church was repaired and an extensive programme of restoration was undertaken. Several of the large medieval windows were however blocked up which made the interior very dark.

A new Master’s House was built, as the old timbered building was in a ruinous condition and new houses were provided for the Brethren. The Sisters and almswomens houses were also renovated.

The Gordon Riots

In 1780 the Gordon Riots brought a new danger to St. Katharine’s. The cry of “no popery” went up from the mob and St. Katharine’s, as a pre-Reformation establishment, came under attack. The rioters tried to set fire to the buildings, but were prevented from doing so by the London Association and the ringleaders were hanged on Tower Hill.

Ducarel’s History


About 1784 one of the officers of the Foundation, Dr Andrew Ducarel, a “learned and zealous Antiquary” compiled a “History of the Royal Hospital and Collegiate Church of St. Katharine” which he presented to Queen Charlotte (shown left), the wife of George III and the current Patron.

Dr Ducarel commended the restoration of the church buildings, which had recently been completed, though it met with little approval from the next generation, one of whom wrote, “If it were easy to conceive that anything worse than bad can be in existence, we might hold up the interior of the late new East window … for still greater reprehension, as being in a state of comparison with the original sublime objects around it”.

19th Century

St Katharine’s Dock

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At the beginning of the nineteenth century a new danger arose, which was to succeed where the Puritans and the Gordon Rioters had failed, and destroy the old church.

A dock had existed on the east side of St. Katharine’s Precinct for hundreds of years and had grown ever larger. With the increase in trade in the early years of the nineteenth century, the London Docks had been built in Wapping and the St. Katharine’s Dock Company wanted to expand their dock in order to compete more successfully.

A Bill was brought before Parliament in 1824 providing for the old church to be demolished to make room for this extension. This aroused an outcry, both from the 3,000 inhabitants of the Precinct, and from the wider public who were, “horrified at the proposal to destroy the ancient Hospital and Church and to render a large population homeless”.

As a result, the Bill was withdrawn, and, “on Tuesday Evening, June 1st 1824 the Precinct of St. Katharine presented a scene of great gaiety, originating from the rejoicing of the inhabitants at the withdrawing of the Bill. The houses of every street, lane and alley were illuminated”.

This rejoicing, however, was short-lived and the Bill was reintroduced in the next Parliamentary session.

Nichol’s History

In 1806 a fire had destroyed all the unsold copies of Ducarel’s History and, foreseeing that the Dock Company would not much longer be held off, John Nichols drew up a new History of the Foundation in which he gave a detailed description of the Church with illustrations of the interior and exterior. It was basically still the medieval church with the eighteenth century restoration which Nichols criticised, saying, “The repairs were doubtless necessary, but the workmen should have been compelled to adhere to the original outline. Any man possessed of the least taste must acknowledge this truth”.

There was a Perpendicular nave, leading into the fourteenth century choir with its carved wooden stalls and the altar at the East End. The bricking up of the windows in the choir made it, “Dark and of the most gloomy appearance”.

Outside, the Master’s and the Brethren’s Houses formed a quadrangle in the Cloisters. The Sisters and Almswomen’s houses were on the other side of the Precinct.

Nichols noted that, “The Hospital consists at present, as it originally did, of a Master, 3 Brothers (priests), and 3 Sisters (single women), besides 10 poor bedeswomen, usually nominated by the Master, and some other officers.”

He added that “The Queens Consort of England are by law the perpetual Patrons” and that they appointed the Master, Brethren and Sisters. He wrote, “The business of this house is transacted in chapter by the Master, Brothers and Sisters, and it is singularly remarkable that the Sisters have therein a vote equally with the Brothers; and that no business can be done there without the votes of 4 of the members, one at least of which must be a Sister.”

It had become the practice to appoint military men as Masters. Several majors and colonels appeared in Nichols list. When he wrote the Master was Major General Sir Herbert Taylor, who was appointed in 1819.

Speaking of the Bill which had been put again to Parliament, Nichols wrote, “Should that renewed application be finally successful it is very probable that there erelong nothing will remain of this district but the name which it will communicate to the docks. Though every lover of this country must rejoice at the Commercial Prosperity which requires this additional accommodation for the Port of London – the Antiquary alive to the venerable remains of distant years, cannot but regret the anticipated destruction of the Collegiate Church of St. Katharine. It is attached to the oldest Ecclesiastical Community existing in England which survived the shocks of the Reformation and the Puritanical Phrenay of the preceding age.”

The Destruction of the Old Church


As Nichols had anticipated the second Bill was more successful than the first, largely because Taylor and the Chapter were tempted by the offer of alternative accommodation in the more congenial atmosphere of Regents Park.

The Prince Regent himself had come to the throne in 1820 as George IV and attempted to divorce his wife, Queen Caroline. She had died in 1821, so that the Foundation was without a Patron at this crucial time. The King took over the patronage of the Foundation himself and agreed to the destruction of the old buildings.

The last service was held in the old church on 29th October 1825. Then, the next day began the destruction of “Old Kate” as it was affectionately known to the people of the Precinct and beyond, to make way for the dock which was opened in 1828 and bears its name to this day.

Regents Park

The Dock Company paid for the Foundation to be transferred to Regents Park, where new buildings were designed by Ambrose Poynter, a pupil of Nash.

No doubt with a view to recapturing the spirit of the original, they were built in Pseudo-Gothic style with a Perpendicular-type Chapel, to which the fourteenth century stalls and the Jacobean pulpit were removed, with houses on each side of it for the Brethren and Sisters. A large Pseudo-Gothic mansion was built for the Master in the Park itself.

The new premises were sited among Nash’s elegant Georgian terraces overlooking the Park, much to the disgust of Nash himself, who was “Astounded at the phenomenon” and never on good terms with Poynter again.

The function of the Foundation changed too. It provided “grace and favour” residences for retired clergy and widows of clergy.

The school was transferred to the same site, but now served a different clientele.

With the compensation paid by the Dock Company, the Master’s salary was raised to £1,200 per annum, the Brethrens’ stipends to £300 per annum and the Sisters’ to £200 per annum.

The District Left Behind


No compensation was paid to the people who had lived around the old church and looked to it for help. Their houses were demolished and no alternative accommodation was provided. They were dispersed and added to the overcrowding of the surrounding area, where there were “30 souls to each small house”.

In many ways the Foundation was removed when it was needed most. The nineteenth century saw a rapid deterioration in the district. The spread of London accelerated with the coming of the railway, bringing a grimy urban poverty unknown before, with only the harsh New Poor Law (denounced by Dickens) to turn to.

The Docks brought other problems. Seamen came from all over the world and brothels and drinking houses were set up where they were cheated of their money. There was a great deal of violence and murder was commonplace. It was said that, “A full volume would not suffice to exhibit the records of debauchery and crime with which the history of one street in the east of London is associated. That street is the Ratcliff Highway”.

To fight these evils new churches were established, including St James’ Ratcliff which was consecrated in 1838. A handsome house, built in 1795-6 for Matthew Whiting, Sugar Refiner and Director of the Phoenix Assurance Company, became the Vicarage of the new church and a school was also built nearby.

The squalid conditions under which people lived led to frequent outbreaks of disease and in 1866 there was a terrible cholera epidemic.

Father Lowder, working among the poor in the new church of St Peter’s, London Docks, in Wapping, and struggling to raise money for food and medical supplies, looked bitterly at St. Katharine’s with its large endowments, as the people of its old area were dying of starvation or lack of necessary medicines. He recalled that the Foundation was charged with responsibility for, “The Poor of the East of London, especially of our own neighbourhood” and remarked, “And yet it is actually permitted that such a body … should rest at ease in Regents Park with scarce an attempt to benefit anyone but themselves while the East of London is calling out.”

Whilst several attempts were made by the clergy of Stepney to obtain the benefit of St. Katharine’s endowments for their people, St. Katharine’s in Regents Park remained “a kind of aristocratic Almshouse”.

In 1878, however, Queen Victoria did end the long series of lay masters by appointing a clergyman, the Revd J Blunt as Master.

20th Century

The Royal College of St Katharine


It was not until 1914 during the First World War, that St. Katharine’s funds were put to more appropriate use. The Foundation’s two functions, of worship and charitable works, were separated. The Chapel remained in Regents Park but some of the funds were transferred to the Royal College of St. Katharine, which was set up by Queen Alexandra (shown left), the widow of Edward VII, to undertake welfare work in Poplar. The school was discontinued, but an Infant Welfare Centre was established in Bromley. The latter was, however, several miles from the original site, in an area that had no links with the Foundation, or memory of it.

Return Home

The premises of the Royal College of St. Katharine were badly damaged during the Second World War and after the War the future of the Foundation was once more reconsidered.

However, under the patronage of Queen Mary, the widow of George V, it was reconstituted in 1948 as the Royal Foundation of St. Katharine and returned to its home area, its two functions of worship and service to the community once more united.

The premises in Regents Park were sold to the Danish Church and the Foundation moved on to the site of St. James Ratcliff, which had been blitzed and was not to be rebuilt. The Georgian manor-house Vicarage which had survived became the Master’s House.

For a time the old school hall (which still stood until the building works of 2002) served as a Chapel, but in 1952 a new Royal Chapel was built in a plain modern style. The carved wooden stalls and Jacobean pulpit were put into it. New accommodation was also built for conferences and retreats, forming a villa shaped complex with the Chapel and Old Vicarage. In a very real sense, Queen Matilda’s Foundation had come home.

How was the new St. Katharine’s built so soon after the War, when building materials were in short supply? The answer is that the authorities responsible for the Festival of Britain in 1951 felt that the return of this ancient foundation to East London was of sufficient importance to warrant special facilities being granted. Thus the Royal Foundation so ignobly removed from the St Katharine’s Dock site years before returned home.

Father St. John Groser, who had spent most of his life working in East London, became the Master and started a “meals on wheels” service taking food to the old people in a modern version of an old tradition.

The Closure of St. Katharine’s Docks

About the same time as the Foundation returned to its own area, St. Katharine’s Docks, for whose sake the old buildings had been destroyed, were closed. They were unsuitably situated for twentieth century trade, being too far up river, and the quays were too small and narrow for modern ships.

Catherine Jamison’s History

In 1952 Catherine Jamison published a “History of the Royal Hospital of St. Katharine by the Tower of London”. It was a scholarly work, based on documents in the Public Record Office and the British Museum as well as the Foundation’s own records. It had originally begun in 1936, but the work was interrupted by the War.

The Re-Establishment of the Religious Life


In 1969 St. Katharine’s once more passed into the care of a religious order. The Patron, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother (shown left), entrusted it to the Community of the Resurrection, an Anglican order whose mother house was at Mirfield in the West Riding of Yorkshire.

The Community supplied priests as Brethren and they were joined by the Deaconess Community of St. Andrew who provided Sisters, so that St. Katharine’s was once more staffed by men and women religious, living in its old district, combining regular prayer and worship with ministering to the people of the surrounding area and providing a place of counsel, sanctuary and refuge to those in difficulty. The Foundation’s educational functions continued with conferences on many issues facing Christians in the modern world.

In the late 1960s  'SK Group', was established as the first known gay social and support group in the UK, was set up in 1968 by the then Master  Rev. Malcolm Johnson with the support of The Albany Trust. The group continued operating until 1994. Rev Johnson was also one of the founders of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement in the 1970s, and he controversially, secretly and independently performed many gay commitment ceremonies in the St Katharine's chapel, in the decades before civil partnership existed. There was also pastoral support given and many funerals taken for victim's of the early Aids crisis. 


21st Century

Getting the Right Change

In 2002, a long anticipated renovation and extension of the retreat and conference facilities (by PRP Architects) was undertaken. Central to this was the reorder of the Chapel (by Jonathan Dinnewell of Christopher Smallwood Architects) in memory of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, for 49 years Patron and friend of the Foundation.

The Chapel of 1951, a simple brick-faced portal frame, and a monument to post-war austerity was important in the history of English architecture, housing, as it did, exceptional fittings preserved from earlier sites, alongside more radical furnishings of its time. The re-ordering has, we believe, integrated the old and the new more decoratively into a brighter and lighter interior. The aim of this was to provide facilities more suited to contemporary ecclesiastical needs and hopefully able to minister to the changing facets of East London life and beyond.

Here the Foundation’s long history and present aspirations are given strong, visible expression. Much fine medieval and modern wood carving is juxtaposed to the great slate altar of 1951; the modern glass rose windows by Alan Younger FMGP cast light onto finely preserved carvings of the 14th century; a modern Christus looks down on Sir Julius Caesar’s pulpit and a chamber organ dating from the 18th century. Here is a true sacrament in stone, wood, glass and ornament, holding at its heart in the middle of a compass star, a piece of rose-coloured granite from the desert surrounding St. Katharine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai

A place to stay, meet, reflect and retreat

In 2011, St Katharine’s opened its doors to the general public by being available via “online travel agency” sites. It provides an oasis of calm within the heart of East London centred on the “well” of daily worship in the Chapel. It has become a place where groups and individuals can stay, meet, reflect and retreat. 

In 2020, during the Covid-19 crisis, St Katharine’s offered itself to become part of the NHS provision for The Royal London and Barts, to give ‘step down’ support for non-covid patients who were, for various reasons, unable to go home. The Yurt Café transformed into a much loved grocery store, enabling the local community to continue to feel connected despite the social isolation required. A dynamic volunteer network, Limehouse Aid, also joined St Katharine’s, which now hosts a food bank distributing food to vulnerable families in the local area.